Warning: The following video and photos contain extremely graphic content. This is nature at its most violent and cruel.
I went in to our South African safari with the hope that I would see some truly fantastic animals at close range to observe them in their natural state. We had a wish-list of things to see, and over the course of 7 days on safari, we checked off nearly everything.
Most memorable, most haunting, most life-changing was when we checked off seeing a kill from start to finish.
(Change your settings in the video to HD for the best viewing experience)
On the morning of May 16, 2012, Mike and I went with our guide Grant on a short bush walk around the property of Motswari Safari Lodge in the Timbavati Private Game Reserve in South Africa. During this walk, Grant pointed out the different types of plants and showed us how he tracked animals. While on this walk, we saw extremely fresh footprints of more than one lion. Grant told us that he’d try to track them down for us later while we were on our night drive.
That evening, when we set off on our night drive, the lions were not far from where we had just walked a few hours earlier.
It was still hot and the lions were inactive, though showing signs of restlessness. It didn’t look like they’d be up any time soon though, so we moved on to other animals (including walking on foot to get closer to some rhino!).
A few hours later, on our way back to the lodge, we checked in on the lions and saw they were awake and alert. Though they had looked thin while we saw them in the afternoon, we could plainly see their ribs through their skin as they stood, sniffing the air.
Having these massive animals sniff the air, looking hungry and ready to hunt while only feet from our vehicle was thrilling, though I of course felt safe the whole time.
We went back to the lodge for dinner and a good night’s rest, and the next morning headed out for what would be our final drive of our trip before we boarded a plane back to Spain.
It was a good morning, to say the least. We got close to two curious young hyena males and then found ourselves amidst a herd of over 100 elephants. We could have called it a day and a trip right then and it would have been amazing.
But Grant, getting a call on his radio about something bigger, took us racing to another scene: the three lions were at a close-by camp and had greatly injured a male buffalo.
There were a few circumstances that made this particular area exceptional for us as viewers, as well as for the lions as predators. For us as viewers, the camp that the kill took place on was a private camp, which meant that only certain vehicles were allowed access to it. Motswari vehicles were allowed. Also, for us as viewers, since the lions had cornered this buffalo on this camp, the grass was not very thick or tall, allowing us full visability.
For the lions, this was incredibly convenient because it was in the open, where they could easily keep an eye on and defend their kill, they had trees nearby for shade, and there was a watering hole about 50 yards from them so they could easily drink and groom themselves over the next few days as they fed.
So there we were, in nearly perfect circumstances to witness what we had wanted to see since the beginning of our safari: a kill. But the buffalo was laying down and Grant informed us that the lions would wait until it stood up and started moving before they would take it down. We didn’t know when or if that would happen during the time we had left on our morning drive.
But lo and behold, the buffalo got up, got moving, and the six of us in that vehicle were able to witness the kill in full. Well, I suppose you could say five since one woman hid her face and was not able to watch.
Nothing prepared me for this. Nothing. No movie, no nature show, no experience from my past prepared me to witness the absolute and total agony of the buffalo. In my mind, there has always been “alive” and “dead.” Movies and nature specials show the hunt of an animal, the attack of the animal, and select shots of the feeding of the animal once its dead.
I had never in my life witnessed the process of “dying” until this moment, and I can say that it really has changed me in some subtle but profound way.
The blood and guts I could deal with. The cries of the buffalo were much harder as he looked at all of us, head lifted off of the ground, tongue out, panic in his eyes, screaming. It was chilling, but I couldn’t look away. I knew I was witnessing something important in my life, and I’m glad that I saw everything in its full, raw detail. It took forty minutes from the beginning of the attack for the buffalo to die.
The smell was also something that I was not prepared for. The smell of death was always the smell of formaldehyde to me, but now…now I associate a completely different smell with death, and it’s one I can’t describe.
I could smell the blood once the buffalo was on the ground, but once the stomach was open and once the innards were dislodged, the smell of this buffalo dying permeated the air. Even for days after, I felt like the smell was on me, following me. On the airplane going home, I could still smell it. When I got home and looked through the photos, I could smell it. Especially when I watched the video footage over and over again as I edited it, could I smell it.
I never thought of my sense of smell as being my strongest sensory memory, but the smell of this buffalo has truly haunted me.
We couldn’t help but be amazed at him though as he clung to life even while so much of him had been ravaged. His cries turned to soft mews, and I willed him to go toward the light, even though I don’t believe in such things. It was heartbreaking to see.
Right before his eyes started to roll, his eyes darted back and forth listlessly. And then his eyes rolled back in his head, he fell silent, his jaw fell slack. Grant said “he’s gone” and the rest of the world went silent, as the sun popped out from behind the clouds, shining ironically over such a gruesome scene.
And even now, I am still amazed at the magnificence of the lions. I recognize that nature doesn’t have to be fair and it doesn’t have to be nice and neat, so I also feel very much for the lions. These three lions, who had been orphaned young and as Grant told us, had to hunt for scraps of food as cubs, were survivors.
While I was sad for the buffalo’s agonizing and painful death, I could accept it more easily because of its necessity. Even with blood covering their faces and manes, I was struck by how beautiful of creatures the lions are. Even after watching this video over and over through the process of editing, I still feel happy that these three lions had done everything they could to survive.
I know that the footage is gruesome. I know the cries are hard to hear. I know the photos aren’t easy to see. But this experience has truly given me a greater appreciation of the world we live in. It’s something I will not forget, and I’m grateful I was able to witness something so few have.
Thank you a million times over to Motswari Private Game Reserve and our guide, Grant Murphy for giving us the opportunity to witness this truly incredible event. If you’d like to see Grant’s photos and his write-up of this experience, visit his post here on Motswari’s blog.
If you’d like to see more posts and videos of our safari experience, stay tuned!